July issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 15 years ago

Stranger to History is a difficult book to review, perhaps because it is difficult to really understand what one should make of it. The tell-all memoir-cum-travelogue written by Aatish Taseer, son of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, is the story of a young man’s search for his absent father. The problem with the book is that it tries to be much more than just that. It is also an attempt to define what separates a Muslim from a non-Muslim, from the perspective of a young Indian man brought up by a Sikh mother (the well-known Indian journalist Tavleen Singh), after being shunned by his own Pakistani (Muslim) father. The thrust of the book, summarised quite accurately on its flap cover, is as follows: “As a child, all Aatish Taseer ever had of his father was his photograph in a browning silver frame. Raised by his Sikh mother in Delhi, his Pakistani father remained a distant figure, almost a figment of his imagination, until Aatish crossed the border when he was twenty-one to finally meet him. In the years that followed, the relationship between father and son revived, then fell apart. For Aatish, their tension had much to do with the fact that Aatish was Indian, his father Pakistani and Muslim. It had complicated his parent’s relationship, now it complicated his. The relationship forced Aatish to ask larger questions: Why did being Muslim mean that your allegiance went out to other Muslims before the citizens of your own country? Why did his father, despite claiming to be irreligious, describe himself as a cultural Muslim? Why did Muslims see modernity as a threat? What made Islam a trump identity? Stranger to History is the story of a journey Aatish made to answer these questions — starting from Istanbul, once Islam’s greatest city, to Mecca, its holiest, and then Pakistan, through Syria and Iran.”

The problem with entwining the personal with the political, however, is that the former always influences the latter. Seeking to deconstruct the bias that Muslims in general have, especially Pakistanis and, in this instance, Salmaan Taseer in particular, towards non-Muslims and Indians alike, Aatish unwittingly reveals his own inherent bias, perhaps hidden from even himself, against Muslims, specifically Pakistani Muslims. Isn’t it natural, after all, to frame his own anger at having being unwanted and abandoned, in some sort of an epic historical religious setting — in Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations,’ as it were — rather than to see it as a consequence of what it really was: the elder Taseer’s nihilistic, egocentric nature. Seeking to interpret his father’s indifference to his birth and life as being indicative of a greater, grander model of Muslim superiority, is as far-fetched as it is ridiculous, and so is most of the travelogue part of his book.

When Aatish travels to Istanbul, he meets Eyup, a young Marxist student, who introduces him to Abdullah and Oskan, two young revolutionaries at the Islamic Cultural Centre, with a pan-Islamic view of the world.  “I had wanted to see how men of faith had fared in a state that had broken with Islam,” he writes. “What I hadn’t expected was the extent to which Abdullah’s faith, in its sense of politics and history, spoke directly to the alien and hostile world system that sought to turn Islam into an empty box.”

Syria is a place Aatish calls “a destination for international Islam,” as explained to him by Hasan Butt, a young British radical member of Al-Mohajiroun, whom Aatish had interviewed earlier for his article on British Muslims. Hasan Butt was was later arrested in 2008 in Pakistan for his alleged links to terrorism. In Syria, Aatish is taken to Abu- Noor, Syria’s greatest Islamic university and mosque, where he hears a sermon by the Great Mufti of Bosnia. Aatish recounts part of the Mufti’s speech which compared Bosnia to the story of an Andalusian princess in the last days of Islam’s rule of Spain. Of him, Aatish surmises: “He [the Grand Mufti] distorted the history he spoke of. His story was a long one of aggression and attack from the Christian west, beginning as early as the fall of Andalusia and continuing to this present, in which, as far as he was concerned, the sides were always the same.” He also calls the Syrian Mufti “ferocious,” despite the fact that he is considered a liberal Muslim with Sufi leanings.

Aatish is reminded of Abdullah in Istanbul. Both the Mufti and Abdullah saw their role as being “to forward the great Islamic past, solidify the difference between Muslim and non-Muslim, and mourn the loss of a great time when the Muslims ruled the world.” The rest of the travelogue continues in this vein, with Aatish trying to piece together isolated instances to prove his thesis about Muslim bigotry and racism. In Saudi Arabia, he performs umrah, but is not really affected by Islam’s spiritual aspects, or its followers. He is more interested in seeing “how Islam worked on men and societies in ways deeper than faith … in places like Iran, where the Islamic revolution had redrawn the landscape.” While performing umrah, he hides his tattoo of Shiva, the Hindu god, but is appalled when a Wahhabi Arab advises him to take off his Sufi strings. After visiting Turkey and Syria, Aatish says, “I no longer felt that my idea of Islam was a great negative space. But learning more about the faith had also extinguished my interest in it. I didn’t believe that knowledge of the religion, especially the Book, could explain its modern revival.” And thus Aatish turns to Iran, where the society has been “perverted” through a strict enforcement of religious edict, as defined by the country’s rulers. In Iran, Aatish meets Nargis and Desire, one a Hare Krishna disciple, the other a rebellious Iranian woman who drinks, smokes and fights for her right to ‘party,’ and it is through their eyes that Iran as a country is depicted — a land of religious tyranny, where every citizen lives in fear and angst. His Iranian odyssey ends when Aatish is given two days to leave the country by Iran’s secret police, and a good number of pages are reserved for his one-on-one interrogation with its agents, an event that is later linked to his alleged near-brush with Pakistani’s notorious ISI.

Does Aatish not himself see that his impressions of a complete faith, of a quarter of the world’s people, come from a handful of carefully chosen people from the lands that he visits? In Pakistan, much of his impressions are derived from Karachi and Lahore’s “factionalised elite” (Nuscie Jamil, Yusuf Salahuddin, Hameed Haroon) as he himself calls them, and his impressions of the rest of the country crudely derived from a drunken, chain-smoking ‘Mango King’ (of the Kachelo family, perhaps?), and the people that Hameed Haroon puts him in touch with. The same can be said of his journeys through Iran, Syria, Saudi  Arabia and Turkey. In Syria, he completely ignores the problem of the millions of Palestinian and Iraqi refuges and, instead, uses literary licence to deliberately mispell official Arabic slogans, making Muslims appear somewhat crude and illiterate. In Pakistan, Aatish points out the rot and corruption prevalent in rural and urban Sindh alike, but completely ignores the most gripping issue of the thousands of Pakistanis dead in the tribal areas, murdered by drone strikes conducted by American forces. In the blinkered world that Aatish inhabits, there is perhaps no reason for the disenchantment of the Pakistani people, let alone any mention of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. This issue is, in fact, addressed only once, where he puts it in inverted commas, clearly demonstrating which camp he sits firmly in.  Is this really, then, the Islamic font of knowledge  that the readers of this book are supposed to drink from?

What about Stranger to History’s personal content? When excerpts of the book were first launched by its publishers a few months ago, newspapers across Pakistan carried them as a front page lead. The timing of Aatish’s personal revelations could not have been worse for his father, the Punjab governor, embroiled at the time in his own ides of March of sorts, a fierce fight for his political survival after a failed attempt at sidelining Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N. What could be better for the Pakistani reader than dirt on how one of the most hated men in the Punjab had abandoned his son and his son’s mother for his own political survival? By portraying his father as a scurrilous, ambitious, cut-throat, nihilistic, faithless, arrogant, anti-Semetic, Indian-hating idiot, young Taseer has assured that all of Pakistan’s gossip-loving, English-speaking elite — and even some from those outside this circle — will simply gobble up this book.

He speaks of Salmaan Taseer as “my father, who drank Scotch every evening, never fasted or prayed, even ate pork, and once famously said, ‘It was only when I was in jail, and all they gave me to read was the Quran — and I read it back to front several times that I realised there was nothing in it for me.’” Aatish questions, “What made him [Salmaan Taseer] Muslim despite his lack of faith?” In the concluding part of his book, Aatish reveals the answer. “I had begun my journey asking why my father was Muslim and this was why. I felt sure that none of Islam’s once powerful imperatives existed within him, but he was a Muslim because he doubted the Holocaust, hated America and Israel, thought Hindus were weak and cowardly, and because the glories of the Islamic past excited him. The faith decayed within him, ceased to be dynamic, ceased to provide moral guidance, became nothing but a deep, unreachable historical and political identity. It was significant because in the end this was the moderate Muslim, and it was too little moderation, and in the wrong areas.”

He rats on his half-siblings.  His half-sister is quoted as saying, “there had better have been a Holocaust, because the only people who’ve paid for it for the last fifty years have been Muslims,” and, “oh, I’m so glad you weren’t a little black Hindu!” Aatish mocks his half-brother, Shaan Taseer, who had once remarked that the great renaissance in Western Europe came about when the church controlled the state, and incredulously asks if he was really so blind as to really believe that a great transformation could come through the madrassas of Pakistan. “I HATE f**ing Hindus, man!” he also quotes his brother as saying. Aatish notes his father’s questioning some of the facts of 9/11 as well, such as the silly assertion that Muhammad Atta’s passport had turned up at the crash site and decidedly says “my father and I, for the first time, were beyond embarrassment.” The young Taseer paints himself as a furious defender of the Holocaust and the Jews when he attempts to explain to his father that “the real horror of the Holocaust was that it was a mechanised systematic extermination of a people,” but he paints himself as the sole defender of this viewpoint in a country where hatred of Jews, Hindus and Americans was rife.

Stranger to History is peppered, in spots, with crude shock value, like when Aatish’s Indian cousins discover he has been circumcised. “Aatish ka sus nanga hai!” they exclaim. The older Aatish once again, uses literary licence to weave together his father and his penis: “If there was a link between the missing foreskin and my missing father, it was too difficult to grasp.” He recounts how his Indian mother, Tavleen Singh, and his father met, stating quite simply that she was an Indian journalist who had been sent to interview him after his book on Bhutto, and that “their affair began that evening … and lasted a little over a week … my father left Delhi for Lahore where he already had a wife and three young children. A month later, my mother discovered she was pregnant.” Aatish doesn’t state that his parents married, writing instead that his mother told his father that “they would at least have to pretend to be married.”

Aatish ends his book with the personal — on the night that Benazir Bhutto is assassinated. He recounts how shocked and sorrowful his father was, having always been a champion of the PPP. He leaves us with an image of a spent, feeble and broken man, with innumerable prejudices born of a cultural and national disconnect with reality and the world. “For it to be possible for men to live with such disconnect, for my father to live so many lives, the past had to be swept away each time,” he writes, “and I felt a great sympathy … muse on the pain of the history of his country.” Salmaan is linked with Pakistan and Pakistan with the character of Salmaan, both feeble, broken, incomprehensible — and, most importantly, pitiable.

It is a pity that a book that claims to be trying to break down and deconstruct prejudice, consciously goes about creating more. It is just as unfortunate that all moderate Muslims, as well as their more radicalised counterparts, have been tainted by one sweeping brush — making them in Aatish’s and the non-informed reader’s, eyes, just two sides of the same coin. And, finally, the biggest tragedy of them all, is that this depiction, this capturing of the world’s Muslim population, rests on the character of two people from the same family, Taseer and Taseer jr, who may really not be so far apart in nature as they think. Opportunistic, self-serving and egocentric are words that come to mind, but let the reader make his own judgement.